By popular demand, another short story by Michael Collins. Danny, a struggling playwright, meets a mysterious woman who asks him to write several stories – his delight soon turns to revulsion and fear. Dark, horror themes.
Through the Aperture
Danny felt a light touch on his shoulder and turned around. A young woman was standing by the table. She had glossy jet-black hair and green, mirth-filled eyes. Her face was wrinkled in a wry, open smile. If by the wave of a magic wand and with a muttered incantation Danny could have summoned the perfect siren, she would have looked like this, he thought. ‘D’you mind if I sit here?’ she asked, with a flutter of manicured nails and a toss of her hair.
‘Of course,’ Danny said, shifting his laptop on the table-top, and removing his jacket from the chair to his right. The girl scooted in and took the seat, balancing a book (a John Connolly thriller) and a skinny latté.
They regarded each other for a moment. Danny tried on a smile, which the girl returned breezily. ‘What’s that you’re doing?’ she asked, pointing at the computer screen.
‘Ah, I’m, ah, working a new screenplay,’ he said. The girl laughed in response. Her laugh was a full-bodied thing, a little tornado of cheer that made her hair shake and her earrings tinkle. Her hands, freed of the cup and book, clapped together lightly.
‘Great! Is it for a big Hollywood movie? Are you a famous writer?’ She had a slight lilt to her accent. Irish, he thought.
Danny felt his smile grow larger on his face. ‘No, God no,’ he said. ‘I’m a play – ah, I’m writing a play.’ A lie – he wasn’t, not any more. His talent and ambitions had died a quiet, unremarkable death. Three years ago, his play Union, an intense two-hander about a failing marriage, had delighted his drama group and nobody else. It had been performed at the local arts centre for three months and then quietly dropped, along with Danny’s hopes of becoming the new Pinter or Beckett. The combination of the initial burst of modest success and the nuclear winter of subsequent failure had sent Danny into quiet depression; his fingers had barely grazed the keyboard since. Right now, his laptop was open on an empty Word document, the cursor blinking at him in silent accusation.
‘Perhaps you need a new project to inspire you,’ she said.
‘I’m listening,’ he said, trying to sound cool.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘how about this? I’m a photographer. I could send you a picture, one a week, and you could write a story about each one. Ten pictures, ten stories. We could collect them together into a compilation.’ She sat back and sipped at her coffee, her eyes on him, alight.
Danny, secretly delighted, pretended to mull it over. ‘I like it,’ he said. He hurriedly scribbled his mobile and email on a serviette and passed it over to her.
She stood to leave; her hair once more tossed around her shoulders as she did. ‘I’ll email the first photo to you.’
‘We’ll have to meet up again to discuss the results.’
‘Of course,’ she said, over her shoulder as she left.
‘Wait,’ said Danny. ‘You never told me your name-’
The doorbell tinkled as it closed behind her. Danny shivered.
Three days later he got an email from ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’. It was brief – ‘Here’s the first photo, good luck!’, signed off with a couple of love hearts. It contained one attachment. Danny clicked it open.
The attachment was an image of a desolate landscape – a fog-soaked open moor, with a ruined, moss-draped castle in the foreground. Dark hills loomed like giant’s shoulders over the horizon. A black-robed figure stood alone by the castle’s torn-down walls, half turned away from the viewer, staring out across the moor.
The more Danny stared at the image, the more its sense of doleful, quiet oppression weighed down on him. For the longest time he couldn’t pin down what it was about the picture that affected him so badly. It was only when he focused once more on the figure in front of the castle that it came to him.
The figure had moved.
The first time he’d looked at it, the image had shown the figure half-turned to stare back at the moor and the shrouded hills behind the castle. But now, he saw, the figure had turned front and centre, looking out of the picture.
Staring at him.
Hard blue eyes blazed angrily out of a thin face. Its cheekbones were like blades. Sharp white teeth flashed out of a shark’s grin. Its sex, if it had one, was impossible to determine. But those eyes contained a baleful, malign intelligence. Mist swirled about the corners of its ragged black robe.
As Danny stared, the figure in the picture raised a bony hand, pointed at him, and winked.
Danny clicked the image file closed with an involuntary cry of revulsion and fear.
It took three large shots of whisky, a dozen cigarettes and two hours for Danny to persuade himself that he’d imagined the whole thing – some odd subconscious twitch. Sweating lightly, he went back to his computer and opened up the file again.
The moor, the fog, the hills, the castle, the figure, half-turned.
The image was the same as it was when he’d first opened it. Danny released a breath he hadn’t been aware of holding.
He started to write. Words poured from him like whisky from the bottle he had drained. Words he’d never used in any of his writing before – red, glistening and vicious, the language of violence and madness. He had no conscious knowledge of what he wrote.
Four hours – or perhaps, twenty years – later, he came back to himself, drained, purged, as if the story had been something poisonous; snake venom he needed to expel from a nasty bite. He took a long bath, whisky in hand, steam rising, and tried to forget that raised hand, that shark’s grin, the desperate need in those burning eyes and those words spilling from him unbidden like blood from a wound.
Three days later his laptop pinged again. It took Danny most of the day to summon the courage to click on it. When he did, the photo revealed itself as a suburban street, terraced houses all in a row, the fiery chimneys of a factory behind, churning out smoke and filth. The picture showed a group of street kids playing football, faces flushed with effort and pleasure, legs forever pumped mid-run, the ball suspended in the dirty air, masking tape flapping from imperfectly mended punctures. Danny grinned in relief and remembrance. It could have been a picture from his own childhood. Then he saw something that killed his smile.
It was the same figure from the first photograph, tall and thin, leaning against a lamppost at the corner of the street. It appeared to be taking a keen interest in the progress of the game, half-turned as it was towards the middle of the street where the lads were playing, but Danny could feel, even though he could not see its face, he could feel its baleful attention was focused out through the picture, towards him.
Danny stared at the photograph – at the figure inside the photograph – for more than an hour. He willed the figure to move, to turn his way and direct its evil countenance upon him. And he willed it not to.
It never moved. But its malevolence, and its need crushed down upon him.
Much later, after another whisky-accompanied soak in the bath, Danny checked his email. He’d sent Kerry a new story. As before he had no memory of writing it, and it was full of madness and chaos. A sly voice whispered in his ear that perhaps he couldn’t remember the story because he hadn’t written it. Danny’s artificial calm shattered. He threw the empty bottle against the wall, where it smashed with a discordant jangle. That sound reverberated in his mind for a long time.
He went back to the coffee shop to try and find her. For four days he sat there, hour after hour, with cappuccinos growing cold at his elbow, waiting for the door to open and her to walk in, hair aglow and eyes bright with the pleasure of seeing him. He’d asked the staff, but nobody remembered her.
She never showed.
And on the fifth day he received a new email.
Kerry had liked the second story a lot, her email read. His writing had showed a lot of honesty and passion. Her pictures were ‘bringing his talent through’. That phrase chilled and excited Danny. An image came to him of a great and terrible engine, pistons churning, cogs cranking, steam hissing from huge pipes. That engine was slowly opening a giant steel door, and something was ready to step through it.
Danny sat at his computer, dully terrified, watching the mouse cursor blink, blink, blink. It was hovering over the attachment. And he couldn’t work out if he was terrified more of whatever the attachment contained, or whatever it would birth inside him. But Kerry’s words burned through all his fear. He could write, she said. He had talent. He was good. Nobody had said things like that about him in years.
With a snarl of anger, he snatched the mouse and clicked the damn thing open.
This one was worse. Much, much worse.
The image showed a simple village in a jungle clearing; perhaps South America, or South East Asia. A group of soldiers stood looking on, grinning, as one of their number held by the arm a young village woman, dressed in tattered rags. The utter terror in her limpid brown eyes was clear. The face of the soldier who had her was obscured; the figure was half-turned away from the camera. But it was tall, and thin, and the set of its body was all too familiar. Danny knew it was the same figure from the previous two photos. And he registered no surprise when the figure turned its head and stared out of the image, its eyes vicious and delighted, and that vicious grin fixed in place. Its teeth, Danny realised, were red with blood. He screamed.
He wrote back to Kerry, just a simple plea: Please do not contact me again. Three hours later, a new email, and a new attachment. Danny felt his hand moving of its own volition towards the mouse at his desk – before he could pull it back, he’d opened the email. Ten pictures, ten stories. That was the deal, it said. His treacherous hand was moving the mouse towards the attachment, even as he screamed at it to stop. The button, pressed; the file, opened. These actions seemed to Danny to take place over the course of a millennia, and still they occurred too quickly. As the image downloaded, he tried to look away, and could not.
He saw red, splashed like paint across the screen. Then, flashes of white, here and there, jagged white edges of things broken and shattered. Flesh rent by sharp teeth. As it began to coalesce his mind tried to shut down, tried to stop the process of recognition, but his eyes, in league with his traitorous hands, kept seeing. He stared and stared at that hellish mélange, and after a while, the figure at the centre of it began to stare back.
And this time, Danny could hear it talking to him. Words of encouragement and flattery filled his ears and his mind. You’re good, they said, you have talent. You’re just what we have been looking for. Your talent can open the door.
He returned to consciousness some unknown length of time later, eyes watering, hands aching. There was a low buzzing sound in his head. He felt exhausted, as if he’d run a long, difficult race.
He looked at his screen, not wanting to, unable to stop himself. In his stupor, he’d replied with another story. Individual words sprung out off the screen at him: tearing, ripping, anguish, crack, fire. It was less a story than a serial killer’s insane manifesto. A low moan issued itself from Danny’s throat. He tried to recall the dreamy uplifting prose of his playwriting and could not. The Danny who had produced that work was gone. And the worst of it was this: the new Danny, the Danny who was conjuring these awful collages of hatred and murder – he was far better than the old Danny had ever been.
It would take an entire bottle of Talisker to wipe the worst of the terror from his mind.
The next day he cancelled his email, smashed his computer, threw away his phone. For the next week he barely left his bed, cradling bottle after bottle, trying to wash away the random red thoughts that would enter his brain unbidden. His fingers would twitch with the desperate need to write, to put down the haunting thoughts that invaded him. Words whispered by the figure in the photographs would skitter and crawl across his brain, biding him to write it into existence.
One day, in a whisky-inspired fit, he burned all his books, magazines, newspapers, anything with paper that he could write on. He sat in his garden, entranced by the lovely red flames he’d created. He fell into a deep slumber, feeling like a bubble burst.
When he woke the next day, and stumbled back inside, he saw at the foot of his front door a slim manila envelope. No return address. Just his name. With trembling fingers, he ripped open the sealing flap of the envelope. There were six things inside.
One was a single sheet of paper, upon which he could see a few lines of writing.
The next sheet felt glossy and rich to his fingertips. It was the wrong way up in the envelope, which he felt absurdly thankful for. He knew what it was, and his mind conjured the face of the figure which had haunted the previous photographs. He flicked through the rest of the sheets; there were four more glossy photographs.
Danny gathered, with immense effort, what remained of his courage. He threw the envelope and its poisonous contents down the length of the hall, where it slid to the floor with a thin slap. Then he ran up the stairs, two at a time, into his bedroom. Heart pounding like a drum, he slammed his suitcase down on the bed, scooped up handfuls of clothes and threw them inside without looking. One thought filled his mind – to get away, to get out of here, to get somewhere safe. His family had an old cottage, a simple place, isolated and alone, on a little island in the Shetlands. That was where Danny would go; he would be safe there.
Danny left his house without a backward glance at the envelope and its contents, strewn across the hallway floor.
It took twenty hours, by plane and train, and bus and boat, to get to the cottage. With every mile Danny felt the chains around his mind and heart loosen. Standing by the prow of the tiny island ferry as it made its way across the stormy North Sea, with the salty tang of the wind stinging his skin, Danny felt the horror of those pictures begin to recede. Kerry’s beautiful green eyes began to fade. Even the terrible presence of the figure who inhabited the pictures began to lose its potency.
When he reached the cottage, he felt two stones lighter, and at something close to peace.
Danny spent the winter at the cottage, patching holes in the thatched roof, clearing away the tangled weeds that had overgrown the path to the front door, and growing a small vegetable patch in a small corner of the leeward garden. He had no television, computer or books, no contact with the outside world. His face became wind-blasted and tanned. He grew a long, ragged beard, red-gold with flecks of grey.
During the long, dark freezing winter he would shutter up the cottage and withdraw inside, stoking the fire, knitting and making little twig figurines.
He didn’t drink, and he didn’t write. Instead, his tired, injured mind kept on stitching itself back together. He began to forget.
His sanctuary lasted until spring.
One cold, blustery morning, whilst the stiff sea breeze ushered puffy white clouds across the sky, Danny sat at his kitchen table, whittling a small puffin out of a piece of soft pine, barely hearing the chittering, machine-gun calls of the gannets. The beak was a little vague, he thought to himself. He snipped a sliver of wood, then another, and raised the figurine to see from another angle. Yes, he thought, that’s better.
He failed to notice when the gannets stopped calling. But he heard the scraping, crunching footsteps on the stony path leading up to his cottage. For a pathetic futile moment, he thought that perhaps one of the island’s other inhabitants had popped over for a visit – in spite of the fact that he’d told nobody that he was here; that in fact he had shunned all human contact in his desperate flight to solitude. As something began thumping against his door knowledge came flooding in.
Danny stood, his useless whittling knife in his hands, the old fear rising in him. There was nowhere to run, he knew. There was nowhere left to hide. His head down, he walked slowly to the front door, and whatever awaited him.
It was the girl – Kerry, with her glossy black hair and laughing green eyes. Danny was filled with ridiculous relief and disgusted by it. In the core of black terror at the centre of his heart he had been sure that the figure from the photograph would be the one at his door, completing its journey from image to reality, beckoning him with its bony hand. But Kerry’s appearance on his doorstep was hardly better, he thought with dread certainty. He didn’t know how she had found him, but he knew why she was here.
‘Hello Danny,’ she said brightly, her teeth gleaming in her too-wide smile. ‘You still owe me more stories, and I’m here to collect.’ She inclined her head a little in a parody of coquettishness.
‘We meant what we said, you know. You really are very good at this. You’re just what we need. Your talent is going to set my mistress free and change worlds.’ She put her arm round Danny’s shoulder and led him to the table, where his laptop sat open, cursor blinking at him from the white screen. The final photographs, the ones he had fled from, lay on the table next to the computer. He remembered what they had shown, of course. He had never really forgotten. To the other side of the laptop lay the last gruesome touch – a bottle and a glass. Talisker, of course.
Kerry pointed to the table. ‘Sit, Danny,’ she said. ‘Finish your work and summon my mistress. You’ll do such good things for us, valuable things.’ Her smile widened, becoming a gleeful grin. ‘Do what you were born to do. When you’re done, everyone will know your name.’
Danny did as he was told. He already knew how the next story would start. He started typing as Kerry poured him a glass, and the chattering gannets matched the sound of his fingers striking the keys, and the sound of the figure’s footsteps on stone as it drew ever nearer.